The trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, former leader of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, is underway in a Federal District Court in Brooklyn, New York. Simultaneously, Mexico inaugurated a new president on Dec. 1, 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is taking steps to legalize the very substance that gave Guzmán his start at the age of 15: cannabis.
Guzmán grew up in Badiraguato, Sinaloa, which lies between the Gulf of California and foothills of the Sierra Madre, where the climate is perfect for growing marijuana.
A United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report in 2009 rated Mexico the second-largest marijuana producer in the world after Morocco. In 2011, UNODC noted that Mexicans were not consuming what they grew, but rather shipping tons and tons of it to the United States — at least until recently.
The U.S. Border Patrol confirmed in 2015 that cannabis seizures along the southwest border between the U.S. and Mexico had dropped to their lowest level in nearly a decade.
Now, President López Obrador's plan to legalize marijuana could deliver to the coup de grace to the cartels' green cash crop.
Not that they care, according to Mike Vigil, a former American law enforcement official who spent much of his professional life devoted to closely observing the Sinaloa cartel and others like it.
“The [Sinaloa] cartel isn't concerned at all about the legalization of marijuana. They've moved on to other activities like extortion, theft of petroleum and shipping tons of cocaine and heroin into the U.S.,” Vigil, former Chief of International Operations for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), told Weedmaps News. Vigil's duties regularly took him inside the dangerous worlds of El Chapo and Colombia's Pablo Escobar.
Vigil, whose first language is Spanish, operated undercover in the drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia for nearly 20 years.
From Marijuana to Heroin
When Mexican farmers, dependent on the cartels, switched from growing marijuana to opium poppies in the 1980s, they felt they had no choice, Vigil said. Opium is more difficult to grow and dangerous to transport, but profit from heroin production is much higher for the cartels and lower for the farmers.
A recent DEA report confirmed that Mexico is the primary supplier of heroin to the U.S.
“Everyone points fingers at Mexico and Colombia, but consumption in the U.S. is driving demand,” Vigil said. “Law enforcement is only part of the equation. Our whole society needs to be involved to help solve the addiction crisis in the U.S.”
Meanwhile, Mexico's new interior minister, Olga Sánchez Cordero, who spearheaded the drive to legalize recreational cannabis and opium production, regularly cites drug violence data — 235,000 deaths, 40,000 disappearances — to bolster her argument for legalization.
Sánchez Cordero told a group of women lawmakers recently that she intends to issue cannabis cultivation licenses to “farming cooperatives as a way of alleviating poverty and achieving social justice."
There's apparently no shortage of cannabis-growing farmers ready to claim their licenses. Despite extensive eradication programs and the cartels' shift to other endeavors, a study published by Spain's Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) in 2016 noted that hundreds of thousands of hectares in Mexico are still being used grow cannabis.
Questions Mexico's Intention to Legalize Cannabis
Vigil, now an independent consultant and author of several books including the recently published “Narco Queen,” does not believe legalizing marijuana will have the intended effect.
“Eliminating poverty and creating jobs is key. As an advocate for the poor, President López Obrador will surely make an effort to do that,” Vigil said. “Hopefully, his administration will make a dent in the drug trade and corruption.”
Will the trial of the biggest drug trafficker in the world at a federal courthouse in Brooklyn make a dent?
“It's meaningful, but El Chapo was replaced a long time ago. The Sinaloa Cartel is still the most powerful criminal organization in the world,” Vigil said. “The new leader never comes down from the mountains and is far more clever and cunning than El Chapo.”
“The kingpin strategy fragments the cartels which then start fighting for new territory. Lots of innocent people get killed and it does nothing to address corruption and lack of economic opportunities for the poor.”
Some say that El Chapo's trial is highlighting the many elements that went wrong during the decades-long war on drugs.
Vigil doesn't agree with that either.
First of all, it's not a war. Wars have an end. This one has no end in sight.